What Genghis Khan's HR Director Knew

Companies today can take a leaf from the organisational design principles of the famous warrior to ensure high-performance at the workplace, writes our guest contributor Andrew O'Keeffe

Genghis Khan must have had good HR advice. In 1203 he undertook a major restructure of his army using the laws of nature as his design principles.

Designing our organisation according to human instincts means we are harnessing natural energy. If we ignore human nature we design dysfunction into the system.

The results of Genghis Khan’s restructure were spectacular. In today’s business terminology, we would say he was the leader of a high performing organisation! Here are the highlights of his performance review:

  • You united the Mongol people for the first time in our history.
  • In a 25 year period your army conquered more people than the Romans conquered in 400 years.
  • You organised history’s largest free-trade zone (the famous Silk Road).
  • You recognised religious freedom, financially supporting Christian, Buddhist and Moslem faiths.
  • Your creative and fearsome military capability made walled cities redundant as a defence against attack.
  • On the balanced scorecard, your staff are highly engaged and no general ever deserted you throughout your six decades as a warrior.

Good job, Genghis. And his organisational challenges were as complex as a modern global CEO’s, with 100,000 warriors spread from China, through India and the Middle East across to Hungary and Russia.

What are the principles of organisation design according to human instincts, and what did Genghis Khan decide?

Principle 1
– Teams as family-sized groups

Human societies are built on family units. We have an instinctive need to connect intimately with a small group of others. In our ancestral setting our family units numbered around seven people and we carry that bonding principle with us as we changed our habitat and moved into offices and factories.

We should therefore build our organisations on work teams of around seven people (between five and nine). Teams much larger or much smaller than that number tend to be dysfunctional.

Large teams of say 12, 15 or even 20 people are too large for the team members to bond and feel a sense of identity, too large for the manager to support and service the team and too large for the manager to be sensibly held accountable for the team’s performance. Predictably, the team will break into smaller units and informal “team leaders” emerge to coordinate sub-groups.

Small teams of say two or three people are dysfunctional for different reasons. The team is too small for people to feel a sense of identity and the team members invariably complain of being isolated. If for some sensible reason a small team exists, then the higher-level manager needs to find ways to connect the small team with a family-sized group.

Organisations that design around family-sized teams report that “suddenly things become more productive”.

Principle 2
– Voices at the Table

For top teams the rule of seven coincides with the number of functions that most determine the organisation’s success. The functions that the CEO needs to oversee will normally cover research/product development, production, sales, delivery, finance, people, external stakeholders and systems.

These functions reflect the voices that need to be heard around the table. If there are significantly more than seven voices, then it is highly likely that there will be duplication of voices and the leader will be trying to skate across too many activities. If there are significantly fewer than seven voices, then the leader will not hear the range of opinions that should be heard to make effective, balanced decisions.

Principle 3
– Power distribution

For hierarchical animals like humans, team managers (including senior executives) should be conscious of the distribution of power in their team. Leaders (and designers of organisations) should avoid the concentration of power in a single direct report.

One CEO shared with us negative consequences of a structure where a Chief Operations Officer reporting to him had much more power than the rest of his direct reports. The COO had the key operating units and most of the organisation’s staff reporting to her. The imbalance of power in the hands of one direct report weakened both the CEO and also the functioning of the organisation.

Principle 4
– Departments as village-sized units

The size of the human brain allows us to gain a sense of identity and to follow the complex tune of politics in groups of up to 150. The downside of this dimension of the human condition is that in organisations significantly larger than 150 silos or internal rivalries will naturally form around sub groups. Rather than ignoring or fighting against this principle we can use it to our advantage by structuring into clan groups of up to 150 – the subsidiary, the department or the factory.

Principle 5
– Avoid the matrix

Hierarchical animals find it difficult to report in two directions. Our nature is to fit into a pecking order in a single hierarchical line of authority. Dotted lines quickly become feint lines with people spotting quickly and easily the real power line (which is the one with the control of resources).

Associated with matrix reporting is having people report to a boss in a different geography, fighting against our natural tendency to connect with people in the same place. We are, after all, hardwired to recognise and read faces above any other characteristic.

The Mongol Restructure

Genghis Khan may well have had these principles in mind in 1203.

He used family-sized groups as his organisational foundation, organising warriors into squads of ten (arban) who were to be like kin to one another (granted, slightly more than the range of 5-9 people). No matter what their kin group or tribal origin, they were ordered to live and fight together as loyally as brothers. No one could ever leave another behind in battle as a captive. As in the family model of the day, the eldest took the leadership position in the group of 10, but the members could also choose another to be their leader.

He was deadly serious about the role of this family-sized group. The family group had responsibility for ensuring correct behaviour of its members. In a whole new dimension to performance management, a crime by one could bring punishment to all.

He used community-sized groups as his next layer. Ten of the squads formed a company (zagun) of 100 men, one of whom they selected to be their leader. Ten companies formed a battalion (mingan) of 1,000 men. Ten mingan formed a tumen of 10,000, the leader of whom was chosen by Genghis.

He also had an elite personal bodyguard….numbering 150 soldiers!

(Source: Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Three Rivers Press, USA, 2004).


As one CEO who is using these principles said, “If not this set of principles, then what else? Following the laws of nature feels right.”

Organisational structure is one of the few people-levers that leaders can pull. Given the predictable consequences of structure, design of organisations should be retained as a decision of the CEO with the HR Director. HR should be the design architects.

Quick Quiz

How aligned is your organisational structure to human instincts?





When each person in our organisation attends their team meeting and all members are present, how many people are there?

Between 5 and 9 people


4 people or 10 people


Less than 4 or more than 11


How many voices are at the table of the top team (which reflects the line-of-sight of the top leader)?

Around 7 voices


5 voices


Less than 5 or more than 9


What’s the population size of our operating units?

Up to 150 people


Up to around 250


Many more than 250


Are managers and their team members in the same location?

Yes, almost always




Generally no


Do we have a set of organisation design principles that we follow?





Organisation structure decisions can only be made by the CEO or the HRD.









Your organisation is designed for success and is no doubt performing well and out-performing your competitors.

12 – 15


Your organisation is thoughtfully designed and would benefit from some slight changes.

7 – 11


Your organisation is resisting human nature. If you are succeeding it is despite yourselves. You have lost opportunity.

Less than 7

Oh Dear

You are fighting or denying human nature. There are many signs of dysfunction. This is a root cause.


Andrew O’Keeffe is the author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss. He spoke at the HR Summit, Singapore in May 2012.

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